Out of Africa: The Dress
Day two at Haven was our first full one. I hobbled out of bed and started getting ready, the punishing firmness of my bottom bunk torture mattress decided to remind me that I was no longer in my early twenties (unlike several ladies on our trip.) Thankfully, the cool concrete floor pressed on my feet like a start button, and electricity fired within as I remembered the incredible sights and new friends that awaited me.
Armed with Advil Liquigels and a cup of FabBab’s version of espresso, (black as patent leather and stronger than all of Mount Olympus combined,) I opened the metal door to our apartment.
The morning was cool and misty, a trend that continued for all of our Kenyan Mountain mornings. Sitting on the brick and dirt wall in front of the playground, I saw Lover Fo Life, Maestro, and Hunter the hearty eater, practically catatonic and bleary-eyed.
“Geez, what happened to you guys!?”
Hunter told a harrowing tale of a turf war between Haven’s rooster and a neighboring one, “Surely you heard the rooster?” Maestro pointedly interjected.
“Nope, it was quiet all night at our place, I even woke up for a while in the middle of the night and heard nothing.”
L4L, in utter disbelief at our good fortune chimed in, “The stupid thing woke us up at 3:30am, 4:30am, 5:00am, 6:00am and basically any time we started to go back to sleep. Of course, maybe we were just sensitive to the fool’s crowing because HE LIVES RIGHT OUTSIDE OUR WINDOW!”
I couldn’t contain my laughter.
“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA HEEE-HAAAAW, HEEE-HAAAAW!!!”
Yawns of exasperation gave way to eye-rolls, by the magic of my braying Jackass ways, I had managed to be a bigger jerk than the broken alarm clock rooster. On a lark, I let loose my most convincing rooster call. Shockingly, the rooster from across the mountain, crowed back. I erupted back into my hee-hawing laughter.
“Yuk it up Yukster,” L4L mirthlessly retorted.
Beatrice emerged from the main house, “Time for breakfast everyone!”
Climbing the small hill to the kitchen, I was stopped in my tracks by the knock your block off beauty of the morning mountain tableau. From that day on, I had an obligatory awe stop while getting breakfast. When you have access to such an incredible view, you soak up every last gaze.
Still full from last night’s dinner of homegrown goodness, I was happy to see that breakfast in Kenya is minimal. Farm-fresh hardboiled eggs, bread, jelly and peanut butter were flanked with fresh bananas and hot Chai. This was more than enough to get our day started, yet would leave plenty of real estate for the hearty lunch that was sure to follow in a few hours.
With the boys at school (they normally leave around 7am) we sat in the main house at their sturdy tables. Beatrice, wanting to ensure we had an inspiring soundtrack to begin our day, played Don Moen’s Concert DVD “I Will Sing.” (Every morning, BTW!) The glossily produced 1998 concert video was packed with stylized flourishes from the era.
For those of y’all like me, who were allowed to listen to secular stuff growing up, chances are you have a limited knowledge of late-nineties Contemporary Christian Praise and Worship Music. Lemme break it down for you, Don Moen is the Sensitive Dad of Contemporary Christian. Aged like a fine wine to water, Don starches his jeans and is there to give his kids an uplifting hi-five. In addition to enjoying turtlenecks and rubbing his wife’s feet after a long day, Don Moen is a tireless musician for the Lord.
“Wow, the production value is very…90’s,” Hunter observed from his tower of hardboiled eggs. He marveled at the concert video as if it were an artifact from antiquity.
“He’s definitely going for an MTV’s Unplugged/ Sheryl Crow sipping a Fruitopia, kinda vibe,” I replied.
The usually smart boy looked at me blankly, as if I were speaking Swahili. “Oh that’s right; you don’t remember any of that stuff, because you were a baby in the 90’s.”
“I was born in 1999.”
“Say Whaaaat?! Oh good gravy, Hunter! You could be my early in life surprise kid!”
“Not THAT early in life,” L4L needlessly chimed in.
“Hush, BRAINY SMURF!”
With a light breakfast in us, it was time to get on with the MISSION! FabBab and Maestro gave us our jobs for the day, and then lead a group prayer. First up, we’d be filling 350 Backpacks with school supplies, every person in our gang of 16 would have a job in the assembly line, FYI: mine was putting in pre-pasted toothbrushes.
In exactly 55 minutes, our merry group of missionaries were able to fill 350 backpacks with: erasers, pencils, pens, notebooks, pencil sharpeners, necklaces and toothbrushes. “OK everyone, free time until lunch. Feel free to explore Haven, do a Bible study, visit with the ladies, journal, or nap. Lunch will be at 1:00.”
Scheduled for later that afternoon, was a hike into the village to pick up 300 jumpers (Kenyan for sweaters,) handmade by a local seamstress named Fidelis. The group needed several volunteers.
“Sounds like a lot of work, I’ll be skipping that little trip,” I lazily assured myself.
Looking for my new friend Beatrice, I ran into Elizabeth who was serene and kind. Rather than simply direct me to her sister, Elizabeth asked me what I thought so far of Kenya. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been!” Pleased, Elizabeth hugged me, her warm smile was one of pride.
“What you and your sister, are doing for these children, it’s absolutely miraculous.”
Elizabeth radiated goodness, and just like her sis, she corrected me.
“It is entirely the Lord’s doing, he has placed us here to do all we can for him. We are merely vessels.”
“Beatrice says the very same thing, I can definitely tell y’all are sisters!”
Elizabeth had a warm laugh, “I’m the YOUNGER one!”
Lunch was a filling lentil stew with rice, freshly sautéed cabbage, watermelon so good you ate the seeds happily, and avocados. Cindy Jo continued to marvel at the vegan jackpot she was raking in, and since she isn’t a judgmental fruit loop about her veganism, she shared some delicious tips and tricks.
Post-lunch, my game plan was to get a jack hammer and loosen up my concrete-like mattress, then hopefully take a nap before the boys got home from school. That way, I’d be refreshed for an evening of hugs and laughter with the kids. I walked a short stroll back to the apartment. The front door wouldn’t budge, “Dangit!” The door was locked, my nap would have to wait.
Never one to waste time in crisp autumn-like temperatures, I chose to enjoy the glorious outdoors. In our part of Texas, the Summer is practically 8 months long, with a sliver of fall weather right around Christmas. Only a handful of days are cool and breezy with next to no humidity. Yes, it was best to soak up this ideal weather like a sponge.
I went to the guys’ room, Lover Fo’ Life was flopped on his bed watching a movie on a tablet. Above, he had a bevy of various beef jerky varieties sprawled across the top bunk.
“Wow, you’re really living the life with all of this space and beef jerky! MY stuff’s in little piles on the floor!”
“I’ll gladly trade you places.” In hilarious punctuation, the stupid rooster crowed on cue.
“I thought roosters only crowed early in the morning??”
“Apparently not,” L4L glibly replied; “want some beef jerky?”
“The answer is always YES! Well, I’ll let you get back to your movie; I’m gonna go take a stroll then snooze.”
I walked back around just as the children were lining up at the gate. Mesmerized, the neighborhood kids stared at us through the gate door.
“Those are the neighborhood kids, who aren’t in school. They wait everyday until they’re allowed to play on Haven’s playground. The families are too poor to send them to school,” Barb explained.
“I thought it was a public school?”
“Yes, but there are a few fees and costs associated with your child attending school.”
I looked at the beautiful smiles and curious waves of the neighborhood kids, rather than a formal education, they were taught by schooled older siblings and trained with Mom on the day-to-day responsibilities of keeping a family fed. Many of the children were wearing what our western sensibilities would consider to be rags.
They waited patiently for 3pm, that’s when the children of the village would be allowed in to play on Haven’s playground until sunset.
Miss Janice, co-creator of Haven, came to unlock the apartment; my nap would be starting soon. But first, I enjoyed a conversation with Janice about the school, village, and Haven, she told me about her dreams for the future that included a community center and clinic. I was in awe of her earnest story, and humbled by the fact that she gave all the glory to God. So much good comes from Phil and Janice’s tireless efforts, yet they refuse to take any credit.
“I’d love to show you a potential clinic site, God willing. We’ll go right by it when we travel to pick up the Jumpers on the way to Ms. Fidelis’ home! I’m so blessed to get to know you, Lauren,” Ms. Janice then hugged me. Sayonara, Siesta.
Half an hour later, 11 of us went to get 300 sweaters, handmade with love and purchased by charitable generosity. The sun decided to warm things up while we hiked and gawked at the otherworldly beauty of Kenya’s countryside.
“Aren’t you glad we brought our water bottles?” L4L, a do-gooder since way back, decided to join the expedition when it was first discussed.
“Yeah, they’re a life-saver. This altitude is kicking me in the tuchus.”
“I’m super-proud of you Muffin; you’re volunteering for manual labor! I love you and I’m so glad you came to Africa with me!”
Beaming with his well-timed complement, I swigged my water and carried on.
Before I could muster the slightest form of complaint, we were handsomely rewarded with a perfect view. “You really have outdone yourself, Padre.”
Buoyed by pure beauty, we quickly made our way to Fidelis’ farm and home. Beatrice waved and spoke with every person we saw on our path, all faces were friendly. In this remote slice of paradise, the concept of a “stranger,” simply doesn’t exist.
“We’re here, please follow me,” Beatrice led us down a steep green sloped entrance to a private yard and shamba, two small buildings made of stone and tin were smartly placed and had generations of use. Fidelis, a graceful beauty, greeted us and invited our big group into her home.
As a seamstress, she had made a nice living weaving on her motorized loom, we sat on furniture that was well-worn but immaculately kept. Fedelis shook our hands and showed us photos of her beautiful daughter who serves in the Kenyan military. Her home was wired for electricity, complete with one of the very few television sets in the village. A small model from the 1960’s, it was still considered an impressive luxury.
Fedelis emerged with a bunch of bananas and offered us each our own. When you are visiting the home of anyone in the village, if you are offered food (or drink) Kenyan etiquette requires you to enjoy at least a small portion of what is offered. If you outright refuse something, it is seen as taking your host’s blessing away.
We all took a banana, before I unpeeled mine; I caught a glimpse of FabBab, just to make sure I was on point with being a good guest. Barb smelled the outer peel and proclaimed, “Mmm, this smells so fresh!” Since I’ve always cheated off the good kids during moral tests, I followed suit and snorted in a dusty residue of livestock manure enriched soil, no doubt from where the banana bunch fell on the ground when harvested. “Oh yeah, this is going to be so delicious!” The stench of fertilizer permeated my sinus cavity as I quickly remembered the day-saving Nalgene bottle of water. Taking a big gulp, I swallowed the horror of my overzealous sniff, at least banana peels are thick and removable.
After chomping down a sweet and delicious piece of nature’s candy like I didn’t just snort cow dung, it was time for our group to get hauling.
Hundreds of pounds of wool jumpers would be guided back to Haven on our strong backs of service. L4L and I were made hauling partners; naturally, he was left holding the (very heavy) bag for 75% of the downhill walk home. We passed the public school where we would be teaching in the morning, and were greeted by a flood of children. The kids were cheering, running and greeting us in the road.
I saw a flash of purple fabric on one of the girls, and recognized every seam on her dress, even though it was partially covered up by her well-worn jumper.
“Mace,” look at that girl, “Valor had a dress just like that, how cool!”
Which one? I gestured to the familiar purple textile, “That’s just like the dress Valor wore for her school pictures year before last.”
“Sorry Muffin, I’m drawing a blank. You’re the one with the insanely detailed memory.”
He was right, I do have a super-sweet level of recall, but this particular dress was burned in my brain for eternity. I personally picked it out and purchased it for Valor to wear to my Mother’s funeral. The dress was so important; I made sure to have it photographed for the fall photo, as I wanted to always remember that this was the school year Mom died.
Halfway across the world, and I was reminded of home by a swinging swath of cloth. As we continued the hike, I began mulling over the odds of finding an identical Target dress on a village girl directly related to my bestie’s charity. I remembered Valor wore the heck out of that purple dress, it was a sad day when she outgrew it and I put it in a big garbage bag of clothing donations.
“Barbara, what do you do with all of Valor’s old clothes I give you to hand out to the church needy?”
“Oh honey, I don’t donate them to the church, I usually give them to Janice and Phil.”
I began to tear up, this was no coincidence, I was staring at the very dress I purchased and then donated. This dress had not only listened to me deliver my mom’s eulogy, it was now a little girl’s most prized garment, one she wore every day.
“What’s wrong Muffin?”
“I just talked with Barb, that’s Valor’s old dress. I donated it when she outgrew it!”
“Whoa, that’s awesome. I’ll get a photo!”
The rest of my walk back was spent hysterically crying while trying to hide the raw emotion I could not contain. Thousands of miles away, I was reminded that each and everyone of us can make a difference. I don’t know about you, but when I dontate items and clothing, it’s mostly to keep my house free of unneccessary clutter. Yet here, in this remote area, everything we donate is not only cherished, it’s essential.
Some random suburban Mom with a textbook Target obsession, put an outgrown dress in a bag to give away. Years later, the universe decided to show her that absolutely nothing is by chance.
Yes, the need in our world is overwhelming, but WE DO have an impact. Something as simple as cleaning out a closet, can do far more than you’d ever dream.
END OF PART FIVE